National Capital Orchestra plays Beethoven, Sabin and Gordon's Moby Dick
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National Capital Orchestra plays Beethoven, Sabin and Gordon's Moby Dick

National Capital Orchestra Emperor with Katherine Day. Conductor: Leonard Weiss. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Sunday, August 6. 3pm. Pre-concert talk at 2.15pm. Bookings: theq.net.au.

The next concert by the National Capital Orchestra will feature Australian, Canberra region and world premiere performances as well as one of the most popular piano concertos in the repertoire.

Film composer Christopher Gordon.

Film composer Christopher Gordon. Credit:Jacquie Manning

The 1996 Symphony by Australian composer Nigel Sabin - his sole work in the genre - was written while he was composer-in-residence with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

Sabin says, "I'd spent some time in New York studying composition and orchestration with David Del Tredici shortly before I wrote it and some of his influence can be heard. You don't have to listen too hard to hear other influences from Danny Elfman (who wrote the theme music to The Simpsons), Philip Glass, and perhaps Ravel."

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He says, "In so much as this symphony is about something or has a story to tell, it's an optimistic and humorous symphony portraying a sense of living in Australia at the time it was written. At that time, there was a lot of talk about an Australian republic and this raised a lot of questions about Australian identity. It was exciting to ponder these matters although these days, the question of Australia being a republic is not something I feel I need to be concerned with."

The first movement, of land and sea, contains contrasting themes portraying the urban environment and the sea.

"In the second theme which is the sea theme first played by the French horns, I sought to capture a sense of the excitement of voyage and discovery," he says.

The second, slow movement, "depicts an Australia that perhaps never was. I've subtitled it the death of nostalgia. I should add here what is known these days as a spoiler alert: It ends with a bit of a nasty wake-up call as if to say 'that was then, this is now.'

"The third and shortest piece is called Light on Water. It's very much in the classical tradition of a symphonic scherzo or dance-like movement although you probably shouldn't try dancing to it unless you're classical trained. The rhythmic outer section suggesting the play of light on water sandwiches a contrasting dream-like middle section.

"I think of the finale as a sort of musical word play on the idea of a republic. You might notice sections which are suggestive of an imaginary banana republic while others conjure up images of a 'swords and sandals' cinematic epic. "

Sabin says, "Leonard ought to be commended for his innovative programming and fearless championing of recent classical orchestral music. I only wish other orchestras around Australia would adopt his approach."

Following Sabin will be a suite of Australian musician Christopher Gordon's score from the 1998 TV series Moby Dick that starred Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. While the first three movements have been performed before overseas, the fourth - as long as the others combined - is a world premiere and this is the first time the suite has been performed in Australia.

He edited the original 95-minute score - his first screen commission, written in six weeks - down to the suite, which runs for about 20 minutes for the concert version.

Gordon, whose many other credits include Mao's Last Dancer and co-writing the score for Master and Commander, says, "It's written for a very large orchestra, 80 to 90 players, that includes four Wagner tuba: strangely enough, it's not a tuba, it's played by a horn player.

"It's more like a bass horn."

Another unusual instrument used is the bass trumpet - "it's an octave lower" - and Gordon says he makes use of large brass and wind sections in the score to evoke a particular mood.

"The underlying thread is obsession," Gordon says for the feeling that runs through much of the piece, attempting to convey through music Ahab's monomaniacal desire to kill the white whale Moby Dick that cost him a leg, as well as evoking the sea, the waves, the chases and other elements of the tale.

"The highlight of my professional life was that I met Gregory Peck - I got to shake his hand," Gordon says.

"I've really shaken the hand of Atticus Finch - he really liked the movie."

Peck - who won an Oscar playing Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill A Mockingbird - was Ahab in the 1956 movie version of Moby Dick and appeared in the TV version as Father Mapple. Gordon met him at the premiere in Los Angeles.

Gordon, who is largely self-taught as a musician, will deliver a pre-concert talk on his career and film scoring.

The third and final work on the program is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" with pianist Katherine Day, a graduate of the Royal College of Music. now working at the ANU School of Music. Weiss says this will be her first concerto performance in the Canberra region.

"There's so much drama and humour in Beethoven," he says.

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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